I once had a taste of what it was like to be middle-class. To not worry about paying bills or having enough to pay the rent. I could spend money on things I didn’t need, like toys, tech gadgets, dining out, and so on. This brief change in my income coincided with the death of Toys R Us, a store that I always loved. I could never afford to buy much from Toys R Us, and now it was closing.
I’ve been poor most of my life. My father made good money, but his alcohol addiction meant he drank much of it away. After my parents divorced — my father’s abusive behavior finally pushing my mom too far (actually, it was a literal push) — we struggled even more. I was only thirteen back then, and suddenly I felt like my world was falling apart.
My mom worked two jobs to keep my two brothers and me fed and a roof over our heads. We moved into a rental townhouse in a complex known as the school district’s “poor kids” area. I already had some friends there, which made it easier to ride the bus and stand at the bus stop. I never fit in with many of the other kids in my childhood neighborhood — my family didn’t have money, and my parents were not in love, so though I missed my home and my yard, at least now I felt that I was among others like me.
I still remember seeing one of the girls I hated in school in my old neighborhood. She constantly insulted me, telling everyone we were poor, even before my parents divorced. She was visiting a friend and I felt pride when I stepped onto the porch of our old house, as if to say, “that’s right, I live in this house…with this huge yard.” I don’t know whether she thought differently or not — the house was not the greatest, but it was a mansion to me. It was home.
My mom and I have lived together since my teenage years. There was a year when I went to live with my father in our old house — my home — before he started dating an old girlfriend, who ruined everything, including my relationship with my father. The woman would go through my stuff while I was at school and insisted that my dad use physical punishment — something my father had finally started to move away from after his family left him. After we left him. I left my home and moved back in with my mother. We’ve lived together ever since.
People insulted me for being an adult living with a parent, but, realistically, my mom needed me as much as I needed her. When she was debating taking a job and leaving York, Pennsylvania, I agreed with the move. My job had no opportunity for advancement and no chance to become full-time. We packed up and moved to Lebanon, Pennsylvania, an older town with cheaper rent, cleaner air, and less traffic.
I decided to return to school and got an Associate in Arts in Business Management, graduating with a perfect 4.0 GPA. It was a community college, and I knew a lot about business from years of working, so I did not feel this was a significant accomplishment. However, receiving an award for having the highest graduating GPA made me realize that this was not some simple feat — I held onto those perfect grades, and I was proud of it.
Within a year, I had my first management job. It didn’t pay much, but it was a start. Unfortunately, the stress at the job started becoming too much for me to handle, and I began to spiral downward. Truthfully, the expectations placed on me at that place were too much for one person to manage. My stress was made worse by an illness that just would not go away, keeping me weak for over a month. I left that place semi-suicidal at the thought that I could not handle the responsibilities of a manager.
Several months later, I was offered a promotion to store manager at my next job, a craft store. I hesitated, unsure if I was ready to take on that level of responsibility again. The pay would be more than anyone in my family had made, aside from my father. We could be middle-class again and not worry about finances. I accepted and immediately was miserable, but at least I made decent money. By “decent money,” I mean that it was enough to pay the bills but not enough to support a family without additional income. With my mom’s job, we were doing good — we could eat well again and afford to get extended cable.
In 2017, after my promotion to store manager at my job, my fiancé decided to move in with us. He struggled to find a job, leaving his position at Amazon to move to Lebanon to be with me. But we didn’t need his income, so after a few months of searching, I told him to look after the pets and take me to and from work. It worked for us for a few years. My mom eventually retired and worked part-time for extra spending money to travel to visit my brothers. She still does that, along with paying part of the bills to help us out.
In 2019, everything started to change. I had to have surgery, which did not go over well with my boss. My health insurance also paid nothing upfront, so the money we had saved to buy a house started to dwindle. It had not been enough for a down payment anyway — we had extra, but we mostly spent it. Yes, we made some bad decisions, but I had spent my entire life not being able to buy things I wanted. Now I could finally go to a store without tracking how much things cost. I could buy toys from Toys R Us just before they closed. We could eat out instead of cooking at home, a welcome treat on Fridays after I had unloaded a truck at work.
Our credit card usage increased with the medical bills, the visits to a specialist adding up. I almost skipped having surgery because of the cost but decided to go through with it for fear of what was happening to my bladder — I seemed to be getting regular urinary tract infections, which, along with increasing pain, was what drove me to seek a specialist. After my surgery, we learned that I had early uterine cancer, so I scheduled to have a total hysterectomy to rid myself of it.
Most people would be at least mildly concerned after hearing someone they know has early signs of cancer. When I discussed my upcoming surgery at my job, I received anger and frustration that I would need to be off for six weeks to recover. The store would fall into a mess, and it would be my fault. I simply started to not care, focusing on myself over some store owned by a corporation. I went over my boss’s head, which would forever damage her opinion of me.
I left that job after the next holiday season for one that was a lot of promises, except that it would pay less. It didn’t work out, making me more miserable than I had been at any other job, aside from maybe McDonald’s in 2001. My husband eventually found a job, though his earning potential is generally not as high as mine. My Associate’s Degree gives me the edge over him — he had no interest in structured learning. Neither do I, but I wanted to be a manager, a dream that was violently murdered and burned beyond recognition.
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I have since been working part-time retail jobs, whether as a supervisor or a simple associate, and doing things on the side in the hopes of making additional money, mainly writing, tech support, and starting my own e-commerce business, Addicted Geeks. I had dreamed of growing my business into something I could do full-time, opening a brick-and-mortar location and everything. Maybe someday.
The real truth is it is hard to build a business when you have no money. It’s hard to have steady income when you live in a poor town where work is primarily comprised of physical labor that not everyone can perform. I found myself sinking deeper and deeper into despair after my knees suffered what seemed to be permanent damage from Lyme disease, creating physical limitations. The jobs I performed in the past are no longer options for me, my knee limitations continuing to frustrate me every day.
I cannot help but wonder if it is even possible to climb out of the pit of low income. I had such hopes with my business plan, but you cannot increase sales when there is no inventory. It’s a slow climb, and I keep falling backward, yet I keep trying to climb.
I am so sick of being poor.